Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Volgograd - The World Cup host city and its historical importance

The ‘Motherland Calls’ statue on Mamayev Kurgan overlooking Volgograd which commemorates the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’.

The World Cup football tournament, as with other festivals of sport such as the Olympic Games, present the host nation with the opportunity to showcase its historical legacies as well as its cultural heritage. They may also provide a suitable platform aimed at portraying the national zeitgeist.

Russia is certainly taking the opportunity to present aspects of its history and culture alongside the football matches by staging a series of exhibitions, music concerts and ballet performances.

For those with a general knowledge of the medieval and modern history of Russia, the names of most of the cities hosting the matches will strike a cord. Nizhny Novgorod was a cultural centre of the early flowering of Russian civilisation while Saint Petersburg is the city built by Peter the Great to serve as Russia’s ‘window to Europe’. Moscow is of course famous as the capital city of both Russia and the Soviet Union, where the imposing fortress of the Kremlin is located. And Yekaterinburg is the city in which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were massacred by the Bolsheviks one hundred years ago.

The Second World War, which in Russia is referred to as Velikaya Otechestvennaya voyna (the Great Patriotic War), inexorably figures in such recollections. For it was on the German Eastern Front that a series of battles between vast Nazi and Soviet armies occurred. Each confrontation was replete with large scale pincer movements, ferocious tank battles, protracted sieges and massive capitulations.

Saint Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, endured a 900-day long siege, while the Battles for Moscow and Rostov-on-Don during the later part of 1941 provided the templates for future Soviet resistance to what appeared to be the unstoppable advance of Nazi forces after the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June of that year.

But if one battle is emblematic of Russian-Soviet defiance of the Nazi war machine, it is the Battle of Stalingrad. Named after the Soviet leader Stalin, the city, now known as Volgograd, was the scene of what is regarded as the single largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. It is also seen as the turning point in the war. The surrender of the Sixth Army in February 1943, ended a confrontation which had consumed an estimated 1.9 million lives consisting of the soldiers of both armies as well as Soviet civilians. Victory at Stalingrad set the Soviet Union on the path to victory against Nazi Germany.

It is rightfully commemorated.

A monument called Mamayev Kurgan, situated at the highest point of the city on an ancient Tatar burial mound, provides a fitting memorial. Designed by Yevgeny Vuchetich and structural engineer Nikolai Nikitin, the ‘Motherland is Calling’ statue is a massive structure depicting Mother Russia as a voluptuous heroine bearing a massive sword while exhorting the nation to victory.*

While Russia’s objective, like other countries which host World Cup competitions, is to boost national prestige and develop areas within its business sphere, the authorities may also calculate that the temporary, but intense focus of the global media on host cities such as Volgograd, will create an awareness of its past, and hope that this translates into a more empathetic appraisal of its present needs.  

*An important consequence of the victory was the ensuing domination of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe. While the breakup of the Soviet Union has removed such domination the Soviet conquest of East Prussia has a not often remembered legacy. Kaliningrad, which is situated between Poland and Lithuania, has remained under Russian control. Formerly known as Konigsberg, it remains for some an unresolved remnant of the Second World War, while for others it is territory firmly in Russian hands and from which Russia can project its military power in the Baltic region.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Saturday, 16 June 2018

A Football Match and a reminder of 'The Kaliningrad Question'


I must confess to have been temporarily dumbstruck when perusing a World Cup brochure a few weeks ago upon discovering that the Nigerian national football team would be playing their first match in the city of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad?

Surely all the former Russian Soviet cities had reverted back to the original names they had under the Russian empire. Leningrad is now Saint Petersburg, Sverdlovsk went back to being Yekaterinburg, while Stalingrad, although not becoming Tsaritsyn once more, is now known as Volgograd.

To be sure, I have noted Kaliningrad in recent times when writing about Russia’s attempts to counter NATOs deployment of anti-ballistic nuclear shields in Eastern Europe, but did not ponder on it.

Kaliningrad has a much forgotten historical and geopolitical significance.

Nestled between Poland and Lithuania, in part of what used to be East Prussia, Kaliningrad,* formerly known as Konigsberg, serves as a reminder of part of the radical adjustments made to national borders and the wholesale transfer of populations after the Second World War.

Not only was the ethnic German population murdered or expelled by the Red Army, the Soviet and now Russian occupation of Konigsberg underlines the fact that the status of East Prussia has yet to be settled by a formal peace treaty ending the state of war between the victorious allies and Germany. The Potsdam Conference of July 1945, which sanctioned the forcible expulsion of ethnic Germans from parts of Central and Eastern Europe, provided that the Soviet Union’s occupation of Konigsberg and the surrounding land would continue until a peace treaty was signed with Germany.

Thus, it is argued, mainly by die-hard German nationalists, that German sovereignty remains compromised by Russian occupation of Konigsberg and United States ‘occupation’ of what was West Germany.

So does a state of war still exist between Germany and the nations against whom it fought up until 1945? And to which country does Kaliningrad, nee Konigsberg belong?

Well, in regard to the first question, one answer is to state that while Germany did not formally sign a peace contract at the end of World War Two, a state of war can hardly be argued to persist. The absence of a treaty is, it is argued, covered by the German Instrument of Surrender signed by representatives of the three armed services of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. A dictated peace it may be, but it underlined the objective of maintaining peace between previously warring states.

An alternative way of looking at the situation is by reference to the ancient concept of debellatio. This refers to where one protagonist in a war has been totally destroyed so that none of its institutions exist for it to be able to exercise control over previously sovereign territory. The classic example of this is the Roman conquest of Carthage. After the Third Punic War, Carthage ceased to exist. An analogy can thus be made to the state of affairs existing at the end of the war when the Third Reich disintegrated and was subsequently succeeded by two German states.

So far as the territory of Konigsberg-Kaliningrad is concerned, the question of ceding it to the current unified German state or granting it autonomy remains a hypothetical one. Attempts at resettling the area with ethnic Germans has not met with much success. By virtue of the Final Settlement Treaty of 1990, Germany renounced all claim to Konigsberg-Kaliningrad, although it did not formally transfer its former title to any other party.

But so much for history and geopolitics. The pressing issue tonight is how Nigeria fare against Croatia in the second match of what is billed the ‘Group of Death’.

*Mikhail Kalinin was a high-ranking Bolshevik functionary who became the head of state of the USSR and for whom the city was named in 1946.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Memories of the Volvo 164

Volvo 164 - 1969-1970 UK Market Sales Brochure

My Father bought a royal blue version of this Volvo model in 1973 as a replacement for his Humber Sceptre MK III. This was just before we returned to Nigeria in April of that year. I was quite impressed by his claim that it could plough through six inches of snow. Or at least negotiate snowy terrain in a manner no other car was able to accomplish at the time.

‘The Volvo 164 is a 4-door, 6-cylinder luxury sedan unveiled by Volvo at the Paris Motor Show early in October 1968 and first sold as a 1969 model. 46,008 164s were built before the car was superseded by the 264 in 1975’. - Wikipedia.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Friday, 8 June 2018

Nigeria’s First Military Coup: My Father as a Witness to History (2)

Sub-Lieutenant Emmanuel Oladipo Makinde (centre of photograph) stands behind Commodore J.E.A. Wey (seated in naval summer white shirt) and Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi (CREDIT: Africa Press PHOTO, January 18th 1966)

This is another photograph taken inside the heavily guarded Parliament Building in Lagos at the first press conference of the newly established Supreme Military Council headed by Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, had negotiated the surrender of the mutineers who had staged Nigeria’s first military coup on January 15th 1966, and had also completed what was described as the “voluntary” transfer of power from the civilian authorities to the armed forces.

My father, who was then serving as the Flag Lieutenant to Commodore J.E.A. Wey, the Chief of Naval Staff, is captured at the centre of the photograph wearing a holster with his fingers seemingly poised to draw his service pistol at a moment’s notice.

This is another photograph posted on this blog on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the first army mutiny. The ITN news footage in the video below captures my father inside and outside of the Parliament building on January 18th 1966.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Putin's Endgame in Syria: Victory or Stalemate?

Vladimir Putin (Oil Painting by Varvara Stylidou, 2010)

In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin was content with what Spyer perceives to be the current situation in Syria: A “frozen conflict” in which Putin is prepared to accept a continuous low level conflict and the de facto partition of Syria. This piece offers a different appraisal to Spyer’s argument that these were Putin’s ultimate goals and instead argues that Putin has been forced to accept the state of affairs by the machinations of the United States and its regional ally Israel, which has always desired the weakening and balkanisation of the Syrian state.

In an interview in October 2015 broadcast soon after Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict had moved from supplying the Syrian military with armaments to providing it with decisive air power, Russian President Vladimir Putin summarised the primary Russian objective as “stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise.”

“Stabilising” the government of Bashar al Assad of course meant protecting and maintaining Russia’s strategic establishments in the Middle East, namely the Mediterranean naval bases in Tartus and Latakia as well as the air base in Khmeimim. It also entailed neutralising the threat posed by Islamist militias which had conquered large swathes of Syrian territory. In doing this, Putin reckoned that he would be protecting the Russian Federation from the menace of jihadi fighters of the sort that had overthrown the government of Libya and whose overthrow of Assad would ineluctably lead to their relocation to theatres in the Muslim lands on Russia’s borders.

It is important to note at the outset that Putin’s initial hesitancy in entering the conflict in an overt manner was, unsurprisingly, to do with the fear of becoming bogged down in a protracted conflict as had occurred with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Whatever the perception is of Putin in terms of the power he wields at the helm of the Russian state, it is clear that domestic opinion in regard to his foreign policy decisions are never far from his mind.

It is also essential to point out that while Spyer claims that Putin has “initiated and managed such conflicts elsewhere, including in Georgia and Ukraine”, a more faithful recollection of the instigation of those conflicts places responsibility on other parties.

The brief Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was prompted by the incursions into South Ossetia ordered by the then Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili would not have initiated this action by his Israeli-trained and equipped army without the prompting of the United States. Likewise the Ukrainian conflict was prompted by an American sponsored coup that was overseen by the then US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland.

In regard to the former, Russia completed a withdrawal from Georgian buffer zones in October 2008. So far as Ukraine was concerned, seeing the threat posed to its Black Sea naval fleet by the installation of an overtly Russophobic regime in Kiev, Putin, on the advice of the relevant national security body, decided to annexe Crimea after the completion of a referendum.

Both actions were clearly measured responses to what were perceived to be American-sanctioned provocations on Russia’s borders. Russia did not militarily overrun Georgia, a nation which had for centuries been a part of both Russian and Soviet empires. And in the case of Ukraine, a country which critics claim is coveted by a supposedly revanchist Russian state, Putin resisted calls from Russian ultranationalists to invade the eastern part of the country and declare a state of Novorossiya. Instead, it is clear that a combination of Russian nationalist volunteers and the covert deployment of Russian special forces have aided the militias of the separatist proto-states of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian military engagements in these countries have therefore been reactive rather than proactive. The same can be said of Syria.

For Russia had stood by in previous years after the United States had invaded or destabilised country after country in order to achieve a so far undeclared geo-political aim of taking out seven countries in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001. Starting with Iraq, the list included Libya and Syria, and was to culminate with the destruction of Iran. Each of the aforementioned countries did not espouse the Wahhabist strain of Islamism claimed by the alleged perpetrators of 9/11, but happened to stand in opposition to Israel.

Roland Dumas, a former French foreign minister, quoted a former Israeli prime minister as telling him that “we’ll try to get on with our neighbours, but those who don’t agree with us will be destroyed.” Dumas has asserted that the Syrian War was “prepared, conceived and organised” by the Western powers at least two years in advance of what became an insurgency. And the insurgents have had the covert backing of the United States and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In concert with Iranian military advisers and units of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, it is likely that the Russian intervention would have enabled the Syrian Arab Army to have purged Syria of the likes of al Nusra and the so-called Islamic State at an earlier point in time, but for a number of ill-timed withdrawals by the Russians such as occurred in March 2016 and December 2017. There have also been a few ill-judged ceasefires.

The Syrian Army would also have been capable of liberating the whole of Syria, but has been hindered by continuing illegal interventions by the United States. Whereas the overt Russian involvement in Syria stems from a formal request made in July 2015 by President Bashar al-Assad, the United States, which nominally respects the territorial integrity of the country by virtue of its formal endorsement of UNSC Resolution 2254, has worked towards the de facto partition of a sovereign nation. And the instrument of this policy has been its support of Kurdish militias, which has been facilitated by the establishment of two military bases in eastern Syria.

The balkanisation of Syria has been a long-term objective of both the United States and Israel. When in July 2006, the former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice called for a ‘New Middle East’, she was alluding to the neutralising of the ‘Shia Crescent’ consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

The means of achieving this was to foment disorder and violence on a scale which would bring about a lasting change to the region. It was a struggle in which Rice insisted that the United States and its allies “will prevail”.

In June 2006, a map prepared by a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel named Ralph Peters, was published in the Armed Forces Journal. It depicted a redrawn Middle East including a Kurdish state, which would consist of an amalgam of territory ceded by four countries including Syria. Achieving the fragmentation of Syria using militant Sunni proxies was a clear objective in more recent times. A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document from August 2012, clearly stated the desired policy of “establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria”.

However, given the Russian-aided Syrian Army victories over jihadist militias, the United States has used Kurdish militias such as the YPG as a means of keeping this goal alive. These militias control Syrian territories east of the Euphrates River, which include Syria’s major oil producing areas. They have also been actively ethnically cleansing areas under their control of Sunni Arabs, including the majority-Arab city of Raqqa.

Condoleezza Rice’s comments regarding the “birth pangs” of a ‘New Middle East’ were made in Jerusalem to Ehud Olmert, then the prime minister of Israel during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Her statement was welcomed, given that it represented a meeting of minds between the United States and Israel.

The Yinon Plan, the name given to a 1982 paper entitled “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s”, is often used as a reference point for evidence of Israel’s aim to balkanise the surrounding Arab and Muslim world into ethnic and sectarian mini-states. Of Syria, Oded Yinon wrote the following in Kivunim (Directions):

Syria will fall apart in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbour, and the Druzes will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in Northern Jordan.

Although the passage does not refer to a Kurdish state, Israeli policy has encouraged the development of autonomous Kurdish territories first in Iraq, and then in Syria. Israel has had long standing political and intelligence connections with the family of the Kurdish-Iraqi leader Masoud Barzani, and it supported the referendum vote on independence in 2017. It also became the first state to endorse an independent Kurdistan.

Along with the political motive is an economic one. In August 2015, an article in the Financial Times reported that Israel was importing as much as three-quarters of its oil from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north. It is clear that Israel would seek to benefit similarly from the oil reserves of a declared or undeclared Kurdish state in Syria, just as it intends to exploit the oil reserves believed to be hidden in the depths of the Golan Heights, acquired from Syria in the war of 1967, and illegally annexed in 1981.

This carving up of Syria would of course have not been possible to achieve if the Kurdish militias had aligned themselves to the Syrian-Russian effort. Instead, they chose to combat the jihadis under the umbrella of the United States. And in doing so, the risk of a confrontation between two nuclear armed powers has acted as a check on how far Vladimir Putin has been prepared to go. Committing more Russian resources in an effort to help its Syrian ally reclaim Kurdish-held territory would not only increase the danger of a Russian-United States conflict, it would raise the spectre of increasing numbers of Russian servicemen returning home in body bags. 

During the conflict, both the United States and Israel consistently sought to diminish the ability of the Syrian military to contend with the jihadist insurgency. For instance, in September 2016, the American airstrike in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour purportedly targeting jihadist militias, but which ‘accidentally’ killed over 60 Syrian soldiers and wounding over a hundred, was a cynical attempt aimed at giving the Islamist insurgents an advantage on the battlefield.

The missile strikes organised against Syrian army bases after dubious allegations about government use of chemical weapons were part and parcel of this strategy.

Israel, which has had a history of supporting a range of Islamist militias, has actively supported the efforts of al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels active near the Golan Heights by providing them with medical care, arms and cash. It has also, with the apparent consent of the Russians, launched its own attacks on Syrian and Iranian positions.

Israel’s actions, as is the case with those of the United States, are illegal under international law.

Putin has faced criticism for being ‘weak’ in accepting these persistent infringements on the sovereignty of Russia’s ally. He has reneged on a promise to supply the Syrians with SS-300 missiles, and has also called for the withdrawal of the Iranians without extracting a promise that the Americans withdraw their own troops and aircraft.

Some would argue that by failing to ‘protect’ his ally and creating a rift with Iran, he is emboldening the efforts of the Americans and Israelis to undermine the control the Assad government has over the territories it has reclaimed. These critics can point to an official statement issued by the State Department on May 25th of this year, warning the Syrian Army against launching an operation in the south west of the country.

In accomplishing the task of preserving the Syrian government, Putin’s intervention has frustrated the American and Israeli objective of overthrowing Bashar al Assad and the ruling Baathist Party. However, given the evidence of the long-term policies of both American and Israel in trying to engineer a ‘New Middle East’, speculation that “de facto partition” and a “frozen conflict” may have been “his goal all along” is somewhat disingenuous.

The partition of Syria, after all, has been the endgame favoured by the United States and Israel, an objective both continue to work towards with ruthless resolve.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Brothers


Brothers by David Breuer-Weil (PHOTO: Adeyinka Makinde)

Created in 2016 by the sculptor David Breuer-Weil, "Brothers" is a 6-metre tall bronze depicting the connection between "brothers, siblings, partners, friends in a human arch".

In the words of Breuer-Weil:

This sculpture is a human arch, but the arch means something very potent: the joining of two minds. It is about connections such as brothers, siblings, partners, friends and joining strangers. It is an image of coming together, resolution and peace. But it also offers therefore a suggestion of symbolic meanings to every bridge or arch. Every arch is a symbol of connection and resolution. My communicators, my brothers are communicating in a very physical and intimate way. I want the viewer to view the arch from underneath, to look upwards at this moment of communication because such a communication is a form of prayer or the expression of a hope that we can be understood by ourselves or another person; the image of is a physical embodiment of the joining of minds. I have personally textured the entire surface with thousands of marks and inscriptions, effectively painting in plaster. Included in this diorama of marks, words and ideas I wrote the names of multiple pairings of brothers including my own and those of many others. You pass under the arch and see this graffiti, but it is not graffiti accrued over time by vandals, but part of the sculpture and its theme.

The photograph was taken by me on May 31st outside St. Pancras Parish Church Gardens.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)


Sunday, 27 May 2018

Gareth Bale's UEFA Champions League Goal: A Short Discourse on the Bicycle Kick



Gareth Bale’s ‘bicycle kick’ is being touted as the most spectacular goal in the history of the European Champions’ League tournament.

Maybe it is.

The ‘overhead’ or ‘scissors’ kick as it is alternatively termed is a manoeuvre that requires great physical dexterity and timing if it is to accomplish its desired objective. That objective may relate to its use as a defensive measure or to score a goal. It is something which, according to Herman Schwameder, a German scientist, is based on “instinct, a lot of courage -and a bad cross”.

Among the great players to whom the the technique has been famously linked are the Brazilians Leonidas and Pele. The West German striker, Klaus Fischer, all but made it his signature goal in the 1970s.

Although Leonidas, the top scorer of the 1938 World Cup, is often credited with ‘inventing’ the kick, its origins lie further back in time. But tracing its origins to South America appears to be sound. Oral history indicates that Afro-Peruvians performed the bicycle kick or Tiro de Chalaca (Chalaca strike) in matches involving British sailors and railroad employees. And Chilean footballers such as Ramon Unzaga and David Arellano became adept at executing the kick in the early 20th century.

It can be argued that every goal utilising the bicycle kick is a ‘great’ one whether scored on a recreational ground or in a football stadium. What separates one from the other has to do with the occasion, the time that it occurs during the match and the acuteness of the angle from which it is scored.

In Bale’s case, his foot could have connected with the ball at an even more ‘comfortable’ location, he had just come on as a substitute, and he was playing in the final of the world’s premier club competition.

So maybe it is the greatest bicycle kick goal in the history of the tournament or even the greatest goal bar none.

Or not.

In recent years, Wayne Rooney’s goal during a Manchester derby, Ronaldo’s in a Champions’ League match against Juventus and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s long range strike against England all stand in contention for any form of honorific.

But one thing all may be able to agree upon is, to misappropriate George Orwell’s words, all bicycle kicks are spectacular, but some are more spectacular than others.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.